Though perhaps not in direct violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law, the was at least in the shade when university president Judy Bense and former faculty union president Steve Belko met in a meeting following the State of the University address in September.
The meeting took place at 10:15 a.m. in the president’s office Sept. 26 and was organized via email the night before. Strangely, it seems Belko, an associate professor of history, sought to circumvent Bense’s then chief of staff, Kimberly Brown, from seeing the email, as he sent it not directly to Bense but through his department chair, Amy Mitchell-Cook.
“It is imperative that Kim Brown not interfere,” Belko wrote.
What issue Belko took with Brown is unclear. Brown had headed the now-defunct President’s Division at UWF, but went on medical leave shortly after Bense dissolved that body and promoted Martha Saunders to executive vice president. Reached by phone, Brown said she had no timetable for returning to the university, nor did she know what issue Belko may have taken with her role in the administration.
As for the meeting, both Belko and the president’s office acknowledge it was was held, but differ on its outcome.
“We kind of had a come to Jesus meeting together,” Belko said on Oct. 31. “I’m not going to say what we talked about, but we struck a deal.” Belko continued, “I wanted it in writing. It had to be in writing. It was all in writing.”
Despite that, the university has said it, “has no record of a written agreement between President Bense and Dr. Belko.”
There can be no contention, however, that massive change has taken place at the university since that meeting, as reported by the News Journal on Nov. 2. One sign that relations between the faculty and administration have warmed is that the the faculty union, who had declared impasse in negotiations for the 2014-17 Collective Bargaining Agreement, returned to the bargaining table on Monday, offering to settle for a 1.9-percent raise to base salary and a 1.9-percent bonus. University administration will respond to that offer Nov. 20.
The legality of the meeting between Bense and Belko is a question of timing. At the time of the meeting, Belko was in the process of exiting the university, having accepted a position as head of the Missouri Humanities Council.
Florida Statue 447.605(2) stipulates that “the collective bargaining negotiations between a chief executive officer and a bargaining agent shall” comply with Florida’s public meetings law, FS 286.011. That law provides that public meetings must be open to the public, that notice must given ahead of time, and that minutes be kept.
The university’s position is that since Dr. Belko wrote in his email to president Bense, “Obviously you know I am leaving the University, and I am no longer the president of UFF, so I do this candidly on behalf of the health of our institution,” that the meeting between Bense and Belko was not subject to the public meetings law.
“As Dr. Belko was not a bargaining agent, the University is not in violation of FS 286.011 via FS 447.605(2),” a university representative wrote in an email.
Bense, however, showed urgency in meeting with Belko, rescheduling a “medical test” to facilitate the meeting, her email shows. In the meeting, Belko has said that he explicitly asked for the appointment of Saunders to executive vice president and the firing of one person from the president’s office.
Even if Belko was not serving as a formal representative of the faculty, Saunder’s appointment, as well as Brown’s leave, were in effect within a week of the meeting.